Superhero Finances: 10 Situations
In Green Lantern #70, well after Kyle Rayner had taken over the Green Lantern title, had joined the Titans, and had been dating Donna Troy for a while, there was a scene where Donna complained about his bad habits and irresponsible actions. Some of her points may have been fair – but at least one of them I thought she was dead wrong about. As proof of his character weaknesses, she cited the fact that he had recently missed some Titans training sessions.
As I recall, Kyle’s excuse was that he was a freelance commercial artist with deadlines to meet and rent to pay, and sometimes getting a job done, on the timetable he had promised to meet, to earn a paycheck, took priority over getting together with some other costumed heroes to practice beating people up (without pay).
When I read that story a few years ago, I thought that was an excellent excuse. A man’s got to eat! And he should also honor his promises as a general principle. He had evidently promised an editor to have a certain project ready by a certain time. Had he ever promised the Titans, when he joined, that he would break off any other commitments on any day of the week, just so they could go hold some mock slugfests and suchlike to stay in shape? It seems highly unlikely that they had told him this was one of the ground rules when they recruited him.
(Donna, near as I can recall, did not pursue that particular point any further in their argument. Possibly she realized it was the weakest criticism on her list, and should be carefully avoided for the remainder of their discussion rather than admit she was being unfair?)
Thinking about that, and other scenes where heroes have had sharp differences of opinion over financial subjects, some time ago I started jotting down notes on the different financial situations of various costumed superhero types. Here's what I came up with.
Superhero Finances: 10 Situations
01. Independently Wealthy
04. Paid Professional with a Hobby
06. Scraping By
07. Cashing in on Fame
08. Constantly On Call, Totally Unpaid
09. Living off the Land
10. Somebody Else’s Problem
01. Independently Wealthy
“Money? Who worries about money? I’ve got more than I’ll ever need. I do the superhero thing fulltime, just because I want to!”
The classic example is Batman. In the 1989 movie, the Joker asked, “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” The answer, of course, is that he buys them out of petty cash, from the interest on the interest on his family fortune. What’s a few tens of millions of dollars, anyway?
“Money? I don’t worry about it much – I know how to get as much as I need, if worse comes to worse. In the meantime, I have better things to do.”
To me, the distinction between “Independently Wealthy” and “Self-Sufficient” goes something like this. An Independently Wealthy hero, such as Batman, already owns and controls huge amounts of money (and assets which steadily generate more money). A Self-Sufficient hero, such as Superman, may not really care about money, and isn’t a millionaire on paper – but that’s only because he hasn’t bothered to take the trouble to accumulate those millions of dollars. If he ever changed his mind, it would not be hard to change the situation with the incredible powers he can apply to the problem!
I see Superman as the classic example here. He works as reporter Clark Kent, but let’s face it: Not because he really “needs” the salary from the Daily Planet.
After all, the Silver Age Superman used to routinely pick up lumps of coal and compress them into diamonds as a party trick. I’m not sure how often the Post-Crisis Superman does that
(if at all?), but it seems likely he could if he wanted to. Presumably he could also use his X-ray vision, telescopic vision, and so forth, to find previously unknown precious minerals in obscure places on Earth (or on uninhabited planets!) if he needed to come up with, say, a million dollars’ worth of gold in a hurry.
On a similar note, I believe it has also been established that both the Pre-Crisis and Post-Crisis versions of Superman have approved the commercial use of the name and image of Superman in such things as T-shirts, action figures, video games, comic books, etc., by various corporations, provided that the hefty royalties he could reasonably demand for himself are instead sent to reputable charities who will use the money for feeding hungry children and other worthy causes. Superman doesn’t collect a dime of royalties for his own enrichment – but if he desperately needed the money, he could probably arrange to get, say, a modest 1% royalty on all relevant sales.
“Superheroing is what I do for a living, all legal and proper. A honest day’s work for an honest day’s wage, I always say!”
The superhero doesn’t have to juggle a “regular” job with a hobby of costumed crimefighting; he simply combines the two ideas and collects a fixed salary in exchange for his crimefighting activities.
In his early years, the Savage Dragon was often called “Officer Dragon” because he held a steady job with the Chicago Police Department. If a violent problem was so big and and/or so bulletproof that regular SWAT teams weren’t likely to resolve it quickly and efficiently (if at all!), then the department sent him to do the job instead.
Sometimes entire groups are in the Supercop category. In the Giffen/DeMatteis era of the Justice League International, this was the way it worked. For various lengths of time, such characters as Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Fire, Ice, Power Girl, and The Elongated Man (among others) were provided with free housing in one Justice League “Embassy” or another, as well as paychecks, all courtesy of the United Nations.
A note: Some groups don't seem to pay salaries, but do have capacious headquarters facilities which include private living quarters for their members to use without paying rent, and they probably keep the communal kitchen well-stocked with foodstuffs paid for out of the group treasury and free for consumption by anyone who needs a hot meal. I believe the X-Men and various incarnations of the Titans have gone through periods when this was pretty much the way it worked. If you were a member of such a group, there would always be a bedroom for you at the X-Mansion or Titans Tower, and something to munch on, and the group might even provide high-class medical care for you if the need arose, but you didn't consider it a good steady well-paying job. More of a club membership that carried a few perks with it.
I usually think of “cops” as being on a government payroll (city, county, state, federal, or whatever) and thus “deputized” to keep the peace. However, for our purposes I’m willing to stretch the definition of “Supercop” to include what, in the real world, might be called a “private security officer.” A character who has very specialized skills and/or powers to offer his employer, and thus receives a regular salary from someone in the private sector in exchange for his fulltime services as a “crimefighter,” “investigator,” “security guard,” or whatever the exact job description requires him to do.
For years, Tony Stark told the public that this was Iron Man’s role in his organization: High-powered bulletproof bodyguard and troubleshooter; a fulltime employee who collected a regular paycheck and presumably got full medical benefits, a pension plan, maybe stock options, etc. Stark was usually lying through his teeth (except, I suppose, when Jim Rhodes, a bone fide employee, was filling in), but it still serves as a good example. (I have a confession to make – I haven’t bought any new Iron Man comics in years and I have no idea how things stand with him right now. Things may have reverted back to the Sacred Status Quo I described above – or not?)
I would classify Captain America's WWII service as a variety of "supercop," even though his employer (the U.S. Army) was using him in wartime activities instead of just asking him to police the streets as part of a domestic law-enforcement program.
04. Paid Professional with a Hobby
“I have a good steady job that pays the bills. I just try to squeeze in as much superheroing as I can - in my spare time.”
Several superheroes fall into this category – neither filthy rich nor desperately poor, but holding a fairly good, steady job to make ends meet.
Daredevil sometimes falls into this category, when he is working fulltime as a respected lawyer and definitely making enough to live on, with the costumed crimefighter thing as a sideline when he doesn’t have to be writing briefs or arguing in court. (But he has also had some periods when his financial situation wasn’t nearly so stable – the several years after he was disbarred in Frank Miller’s “Born Again” storyline, for instance.)
Superman, a professional journalist who wants to keep the job he has, would fall into this category if his powers weren’t so incredible that we just know he doesn’t really “need” the regular salary of a newspaper reporter anyway.
“You want me to save the world? My going rate for that is –”
The hero does his superhero thing for a living, but - unlike the Supercop type - he picks and chooses his cases as he goes along, on a work-for-hire basis, rather than faithfully taking orders from a single company or government agency every day of the week.
Of course, there are a few variations. He may work as a freelance bodyguard, investigator, etc., or he may prefer to specialize in bounty hunting. That way he doesn't have to really take orders from a client; he just finds out who already has prices on their heads, and then concentrates on finding those people for the big payoff. Alternately, he may sign up with a company which is always his employer of record, but that company in turn leases his services to a wide range of clients for various assignments, some of them quite dangerous, others not. The Power Company worked that way.
Speaking of which, here is some dialogue from the Power Company's “Manhunter” character (one of several to use that name over the decades), written by Kurt Busiek in Power Company #12. Manhunter and Skyrocket are having a dispute over strategy. Skyrocket wants to concentrate on a perceived threat to STAR Labs, but she has tried - and failed - to get STAR to sign a contract retaining the Power Company's services despite her very sincere warnings about what she thinks is headed their way.
MANHUNTER: Maybe Josiah let you kid yourself into thinking it was all about the pro bono, but he’s not here, so it’s time to smarten up. This company’s built on partnership investments. Your money. Josiah’s money. Witchfire’s. Mine. And you can throw yours away for all I care – but I didn’t spend years in the bush building a fortune so you could toss it all away on someone who doesn’t want to hire you.
[next panel – he’s continuing to explain the basic realities of the capitalistic approach.]
MANHUNTER: They don’t want to hire you. Did that get through? You don’t have a client. You don’t have a client. You don’t have a client!
All things considered, I was very sympathetic to Manhunter’s point of view here. The Power Company wasn’t a “nonprofit” organization, and it had never claimed to be. Skyrocket knew that when she invested enough to qualify for a partnership (as one of four partners, each with a vote). As one of the partners who invested heavily to make the company possible, Manhunter had a right to expect them to concentrate on using the company’s assets where they would get a return on the investment, instead of squandering them on a series of battles for which no one was offering any money no matter how well they did.
Manhunter, meanwhile, had lined up a meeting that day with a paranoid television personality who wanted to hire superpowered guards he almost certainly didn't need. Since there a prospective client and a chance to make honest-to-goodness money involved, Manhunter figured that took priority over any concerns about superpowered assaults on STAR facilities, when STAR wasn't their client and didn't want to be.
Right - not the decision Superman or Batman would have made if given a choice of going to one place or the other right then, but as I pointed out above, Superman and Batman aren't in it for the money; they can get all the cash they'll ever need by other means.
(The other employees of the Power Company who witnessed that argument between Skyrocket and Manhunter were not so fortunate in financial terms - but ultimately chose to follow Skyrocket's lead in this instance. I believe Manhunter could have legally insisted they were guilty of breach of contract and perhaps theft of company property and other things, but never did - as far as I can recall.)
06. Scraping By
“Don’t know how I’m going to pay the rent next month – but I’m not proud; I’ll accept any kind of work I can get as long it’s enough to keep me alive! Evenings and weekends, perhaps I can unwind by doing the superhero bit and forget my worries for a few hours at a stretch.”
The superhero has no fixed source of income. Not from a job, not from a trust fund, not from some other semi-reliable source such as being a bestselling novelist or movie star. He wanders around, doing odd jobs for various lengths of time, just barely keeping his head above water. The principal difference between “Scraping By” and “Freelance,” as I define them, is that his “odd jobs” usually don’t involve selling his “superhero” services, but rather are things he can do in his “secret identity” as if he were just another regular guy. Washing dishes or digging ditches, if that’s what it takes. Employment for a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks, but never managing (or not wanting?) to land anything resembling a "permanent" job.
Hal Jordan was sometimes in this category. In fact, he was definitely just scraping by when I first began to buy a brand new monthly title about him. (In 1990.) In his first issue of that series, he got and then lost a job as a hired hand on a widow’s farm. (Guy Gardner's fault, actually.) In his second issue, he got and then lost a job as a hired hand on a fishing boat. (Guy Gardner's fault, actually.) In his third issue, he had no job and he and Guy Gardner got tossed into a small town's jail for disturbing the peace (fist fight in the street, having both taken off their rings to make it a man-to-man confrontation). Fourth issue, he got a job as a fruit picker in an orchard in California, which he abandoned shortly - and for once, it wasn't Guy Gardner's fault. Hal got a distorted message from fellow Green Lantern John Stewart and realized something was badly wrong on Oa. We're not talking "financial stability" here. (Darned if I can remember just where Hal was getting cash to buy groceries for the next few years, after the big mess on Oa was finally straightened out, and before Emerald Twilight!)
Spider-Man has definitely spent a lot of time in this category. Times when he was simply snapping photos of crime scenes and such, and hoping to collect enough money from J. Jonah Jameson (or sometimes from other newspapers) to let him keep paying the rent awhile longer.
As I mentioned above, Matt Murdock was in this category at some points in the years following his disbarment.
07. Cashing in on Fame
“Yes, I’m a superhero. Yes, I make lots of money. Not (usually) by selling my services as a bulletproof bodyguard, but by capitalizing on my image!”
Hardcase #4. Written by James D. Hudnail; the story was co-plotted by Hudnail and Steve Englehart as part of a crossover with Englehart’s title “The Strangers.” (Those were "Ultraverse" titles. I mention this for those of you who don't remember the Ultraverse from when Malibu was publishing it back around 1993 and 1994 before Marvel bought them out and the Ultraverse faded away.)
Veteran superhero and Hollywood actor Hardcase comes home to find a newly formed group, the Strangers, waiting to beg him to offer any useful advice he has available on how they can successfully use their newfound “ultra” powers to be superheroes. (Well, “newfound” powers in six cases out of seven, anyway. The seventh member of the team was a sorceress with years of training in the mystic arts. But you get the idea.)
Hardcase eventually agrees to give them some of his time, and for a couple of pages he talks about how, right after he got his powers, he formed a group called the Squad. He met with three other local Ultras, saying “If we pool our resources, we could get major media exposure. And that could help all our careers!” He continues in that vein, offering the benefit of his vast experience to the Strangers – reminiscing about magazine covers, pro bono work for charitable causes (presumably when reporters were present to record these unselfish acts of heroism), and then the offers to make television ads for good money started coming in, so the Squad leased office space and hired a secretary to handle all the mail and phone calls begging for their attention . . .
Zip-Zap finally raises his hand and says, “Yo! Hold up a sec! I thought you were gonna tell us what it’s like to be an Ultra. The money part’s cool, but what about the action?”
The light finally dawns! Hardcase says, “Oh, you wanted to hear about the fights and stuff. I thought you were just interested in the business side of things. Well . . .”
That was my first exposure to Hardcase when this story first came out. I was a bit shocked that he assumed the only type of advice new "ultras" could possibly want from him would be on how to cash in on their new images. (I later read more of his stories and decided that my first impression of him, as a money-grubbing Hollywood celebrity first and foremost, had been too harsh.)
08. Constantly on Call, Totally Unpaid
“You are a superhero. You work for us. You are on call 24/7 if we say we need you. We expect you to drop whatever else you are doing when we snap our fingers. But we don’t pay you anything! You’ll just have to scrounge for meals and spending money in whatever tiny amounts of spare time we permit you to have!”
The Green Lantern Corps used to work this way. (I am not a regular reader of the latest GL comics, so I don’t know just how the current situation stands for Hal Jordan and any other GLs who are floating around in the DCU at this exact moment.) A brain-dead way to run an interstellar police force if you ask me, but little things like injustice and starvation wages (if “zero dollars a year” doesn’t qualify as “starvation wages,” then I can’t imagine what does!) never stopped the Guardians of the Universe from doing as they saw fit! As near as I can recall, if Hal, in the very old days, was in the middle of whatever his civilian employer was paying him to do, and the Guardians ordered him to do something else, he was supposed to drop his paid activities in favor of doing the something else as quickly as possible. If he was in danger of losing his job over it, that was just tough!
I sometimes had trouble grasping the distinction between "service as a Green Lantern" on the one hand, and "Slave Labor" on the other. At the top of this post, I mentioned Kyle Rayner skipping some Titans training sessions in favor of meeting deadlines as a commercial artist. If he'd then been accountable to the old Guardians as they behaved in the pre-Millennium days, I don't think they would have let him off the hook on that account, if he failed to come running every time they snapped their fingers. Probably would have threatened to fire him if he ever got his priorities so mixed up again. And if he ended up getting evicted from his apartment for nonpayment of rent, that would just be tough!
09. Living off the Land
“My crimefighting operation is self-financing! I use ill-gotten gains to do good! After I confiscate them from the previous owners, of course!"
The Punisher does it this way, avoiding any need to hold down a steady forty-hour-a-week job. Although I have never been a huge Punisher fan, what I have read about him give me the impression that if he raids a drug dealer’s headquarters, shoots anybody who resists, and finds a million dollars in cold cash in a cardboard box waiting to be money-laundered, then he’ll take the million to fund his crusade. Over the years, that could add up to a very tidy sum. Most costumed crimefighters show a somewhat higher respect for the law of the land and don’t habitually “confiscate” money they have no legal authority to confiscate, but the Punisher makes his own rules as he goes along.
10. Somebody Else’s Problem
“Paying the bills? That’s somebody else’s problem!”
Consider many of the teen heroes who still live at home with one or both parents (or some other adult mentor, legal guardian, or whatever.) It's the grown-up's responsibility to worry about paying bills, putting food on the table, etc. The kids just want to go to school (or not), and do the hero thing for kicks in their spare time. They usually aren't expected to hold down regular jobs on the side. (In some cases - if they are living in Wayne Manor, for instance - the money isn't really a problem for the adult mentor, either.)
Someday these kids will have to worry about balancing a checkbook - but not yet. (Unless a writer wants to throw some curve balls at them all of a sudden by changing their family's circumstances.)